Imagine that you are highly absorbed in reading a magazine story and you find a print advertisement between the pages: will the experience of being absorbed in the reading influence how much you like the advertised product? Bobby Calder (professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management) and Jing Wang (University of Iowa, graduate of the Kellogg School’s doctoral program in marketing) sought to answer this question. They examined how the extent of being absorbed into the narrative flow of a story—an experience termed transportation—affects advertising effectiveness.

Most consumers experience transportation to some extent with different types of media—magazines or television, for example. Previous research on the transportation experience has shown that a high level of transportation into the narrative flow leads to more changes in story-related beliefs and produces a pleasurable experience. In advertising, a high level of transportation into an ad leads to a more favorable brand evaluation and greater intentions to purchase that brand’s products. Most of the research on this topic has examined the effect of transportation induced by an ad or story. Wang and Calder, however, examine how consumers evaluate the product in an ad that is presented in a media context (e.g., a magazine story) as a function of the media-induced transportation experience.

The more consumers are engaged in the media context, the more likely the advertising effectiveness will be negatively affected.Building on the finding that transportation produces a pleasurable experience, Wang and Calder propose that consumers’ evaluation of a product, when it is advertised within the media context that is inducing their transportation, depends on two factors: the extent to which consumers are transported in the media context, and the level of ad intrusiveness to the transportation experience. Specifically, they hypothesized that if an ad does not interfere with the transportation process into the media content, the positive experience of transportation will lead to greater advertising effectiveness. However, if the ad intrudes on the transportation experience, this will create a negative experience, thus leading to lower advertising effectiveness.

To test this hypothesis, Wang and Calder conducted a series of experiments with university undergraduate students. The participants viewed an ad in the context of reading a magazine article. Subsequently, participants were asked to indicate their attitude towards the advertised product, and to report their subjective experience of being transported in reading the story.

Engaging—or Interrupting—the Consumer

In the first experiment, fifty-six participants read a four-page book excerpt about a college life situation in which a full-page ad for Wendy’s was presented. The intrusiveness of the ad was varied by its position within the pages of the story. Half of the participants read the ad after the second page of the story, which interrupted their transportation experience. The other half read the ad after the last page of the story, which did not interfere with their transportation experience. Consistent with the hypothesis, results showed that when the ad was presented at the end of the story, highly transported participants had a higher evaluation of Wendy’s than those who were less transported. In contrast, when the ad was inserted in the middle of the story, participants who were more transported had a lower evaluation of Wendy’s than those who were less transported.

In the second experiment, fifty undergraduate students viewed an ad for a fictitious brand of bottled water while reading a three-page short story by O’Henry. The intrusiveness of the ad, which in this case was always positioned between the second and third pages of the story, was manipulated by varying the relevance of the product to the participants. This manipulation was accomplished by having participants first take part in an allegedly unrelated study about shopping for a social event.

Before reading the story, half of the participants were told they would be in charge of getting beverages for a social event (goal-relevant condition). In this condition, viewing the ad for the fictitious brand of bottled water was particularly relevant to participants’ subsequent goals. Hence they were more likely to process the ad deeply while reading the story, which was more intrusive to their transportation experience. The remaining participants were told they would be responsible for getting snacks for a social event (goal-irrelevant condition). In this condition, the ad for the fictitious brand of bottled water was of less relevance to their goals and thus they were likely to process the ad less deeply. Consequently, viewing the ad was less intrusive to their transportation experience.

Supporting the researchers’ hypothesis, results showed that when the ad was irrelevant to the participants’ goal, they were equally favorable towards the bottled water regardless of their transportation experience. However, when the ad was relevant to their goal, participants who were more transported showed less favorable attitudes towards the bottled water than those who were less transported.

Taking Aim with Targeted Advertising

Wang and Calder were also interested in distinguishing the effects of involvement and transportation in the media context on advertising. Involvement has classically been defined as the level of personal interest or usefulness evoked by a story. Transportation usually refers to the experience of being caught up in the events described in a narrative. To test the differential effects of involvement and transportation, Wang and Calder conducted a third experiment. This experiment was structured to induce a transportation condition (either low or high) and an involvement condition (either low or high) in forty-eight undergraduate students. The conditions were induced when the participants read the same book excerpt about college life used in the first study and viewed the bottled water ad used in the second study. In this experiment the ad was always positioned in the middle of the story.

For half of the participants, the story had a smooth chronological flow (which induced a high transportation condition), while for the other half the story was reordered to read less smoothly (which induced a low transportation condition). The level of involvement was manipulated by presenting the book excerpt as part of a new magazine concept that the participants were asked to evaluate. Participants in the high involvement condition were told that the magazine would be distributed on campus in the coming academic year and that it would contain several articles for college students. They were additionally informed that they had been selected as a representative sample of the magazine’s target audience, and that the authors would be students from their university. In the low involvement condition, participants were told that the magazine might be circulated in several cities in a few years, and that the authors would be ordinary people—not students from the university. Participants were also informed that they had been randomly selected (from the general population) to participate in the study.

Consistent with the previous experiments’ findings, results showed that participants in the high transportation condition evaluated the product less favorably than those in the low transportation condition because of the ad’s intrusiveness. In addition, this experiment showed that highly-involved participants liked the advertised product less than those who had low involvement. This indicates that media transportation produces a unique and independent effect on attitudes towards the advertised brand, over and above the effect of involvement.

Can consumers’ absorption in reading an article or watching a television show affect advertisement effectiveness when the ad is presented in the context of that media? Wang and Calder’s research seems to provide evidence that it does. The more consumers are transported in the media context, the more likely the advertising effectiveness will be negatively affected if the ad intrudes on the transportation process. This research has significant implications for advertisers. Companies may actually be paying more for media ad placements that lead to lower advertising effectiveness. For example, it often costs more to place ads in a media context targeting relevant audiences. However, these audiences might like the advertised product less if the act of processing the ad intrudes on their media transportation experience. While it is a major goal for advertisers to catch the attention of audiences, it is important for them to consider reducing the ad’s intrusiveness in order to avoid the negative impact of media transportation on advertising effectiveness.